Syrian Crisis: Carnage to Intensify

The UN High Commission for Human Rights now believes 60,000 Syrians have been killed since March 2011 (far more than claimed by the Syrian opposition) and that death rates have been rising more sharply of late. Given the situation on the ground and the continuing failure of diplomacy, the bloody human toll in Syria — along with far broader suffering and privation – will probably increase before the grueling tug of war between the regime and the opposition draws to a conclusion in one way or another.

The last weekend of 2012 saw an especially severe spike in casualties with government forces counterattacking in the Damascus area, Homs/Hama in central Syria, and Aleppo in the north. Even heavier regime airpower was brought to bear. This contrasted with vigorous opposition advances in recent weeks. It appears that after weeks of sustained offensive operations, some important rebel units ran short of munitions, despite earlier captures of improved weapons and ammunition from government military facilities. Sensing a slackening of pressure, the regime evidently sought to take advantage of the situation by launching a desperate effort to reclaim a few pieces of lost ground and perhaps even wrest some of the initiative from the rebels.

Yet, given the continuing toll on the regime’s own military assets and its inability to replenish its troop losses as readily as those of the rebels, any government gains are likely to be short-lived, especially as rebel forces regroup and resupply themselves once again. Indeed, even as airstrikes have been pounding rebel positions around Damascus in particular, opposition fighters have been closing in on two Syrian air bases farther north. The regime’s growing international isolation and shortages of basic supplies to satisfy the needs of the population (even within the government’s shrunken holdings) suggests it remains at an overall disadvantage regardless.

It should come as no surprise for backers of UN and Arab League representative Lahkdar Brahimi’s most recent initiative that his truce offer has been spurned by the opposition (and not unexpectedly encouraged by an increasingly beleaguered Assad regime). In fact, the choice of Moscow as a venue for talks was especially off-putting for the rebels because, as has been seen, the opposition views Russia as one of the two premier supporters of the Assad regime.

The bottom line is that a sort of Catch-22 situation is continuing on the diplomatic front: the side that believes it has the upper hand and will eventually prevail militarily (currently the opposition) is unlikely to accept a truce because a ceasefire would interfere with its ability to sustain intense military pressure on the other side. Only a prolonged, costly stalemate — not seen in quite a while — might interest both sides in calling at least a temporary halt to the bloodletting.

Meanwhile, failing the defection of substantial army units to the rebels, the fighting is likely to remain fierce — even desperate. From time to time, the rebels capture government caches of better weapons, and that will continue, giving them a somewhat more even playing field against regime forces. Those Syrians (most Alawites, many Christians, as well as a minority of Sunni Arabs who have benefited from the regime) will fight bitterly, fearing a rebel (or even militant Islamic) victory would overturn their world as they know it, perhaps even endangering their own families or entire sectarian communities. And, the longer the bloodletting continues in terms of time, sheer violence, atrocities, and total casualties, the more the amount of retribution — both authorized and spontaneous — will mount for those who have chosen, essentially, to fight for the regime right up, or close, to the bitter end.

Photo: Wojtek Ogrodowczyk/Flickr (2010)

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.


One Comment

  1. One wonders where the U.N. has come up with the 60,000 deaths- even a fraction of that number would be horrendous, as is the refugee count, now estimated in the hundreds of thousands.

    This is not only a battle over Syria, or about the unspeakable devastation that is being wreaked on the people, and on their property, way of life, state institutions and leadership, it is also a battle over whether international law and the UN Charter, and the rights thereof, are to prevail over those forces which have sought to pervert or ignore the international rules, institutions and protocols.

    And it is not only a battle over whether a state can be invaded and plundered at will, but whether a propaganda war which falsifies the narrative and suppresses the facts to shift blame and guilt for civilian deaths and human rights violations should be able to prevail.

    The U.S. has been shamefully complicit in this conflict, and our leaders, including our present State and Defense Departments, and our probable next Secretary of State have much to answer for. (In the case of our outgoing Secretaries, a war tribunal would be an appropriate next destination.)

    There is, for example, evidence pointing toward U.S. and allied involvement in provoking violence at the very beginning in 2011 during otherwise peaceful demonstrations, e.g., through reports by Al Jazeeri journalists, of men and weapons infiltrating from Lebanon and elsewhere leading up to sniper attacks that were suppressed by the Qatari owners of Aljazeera- where the attacks were then falsely blamed on the Syrian government. This was subsequently followed by massacres in Homs, Hama and Houlas which were similarly attributed to the regime, though follow-up investigations by Frankfurt Allegemein and others, and the very logic of the attacks and identity of the victims, indicated the contrary. Instead, this type of counterinsurgency special ops carnage is believed by many to have been coordinated through Ambassador Robert Ford, who had been John Negroponte’s Number 2 man in Iraq, where the U.S. was responsible for a similar counterinsurgency terror program.

    One finds it particularly shameful and tragic that our war in Iraq resulted in an estimated 4 million displaced persons, including approximately one million refugees that fled to Syria. Even though Syria could ill afford it, the Syrian government welcomed the refugees, and housed them, fed them, gave them health care and provided education to their children, while the American government allowed into the United States several hundred. Now, these same people are at risk one more time, and likely many of them are refugees again.

    Our Administration knew that Syria was going through a Constitutional reform process that was originally scheduled to be completed in 2014. Why could it not have waited? And if it was really concerned about “democracy” and “human rights”, it could, instead, have easily insisted on fair and independently monitored elections at that time, rather than destroying the stability of the country, and encouraging, facilitating and coordinating the conflict, and making itself the catalyst and a cause of Syria’s carnage and destruction

    Clearly, a significant number of Syrians, including a large proportion of its Sunni population, still support the government. So, it would be mistaken and/or disingenuous to suggest that this has been reduced to a sectarian war pitting the Alawites against the Sunnis. Instead, it seems to have always been primarily an invasion from the outside, and one intended to: 1) destabilize Syria and its regional allies, Iran and Hezbollah, 2) overturn the Syrian socialist regime, 3) destroy any non-sectarian future for the country and substitute a Muslim Brotherhood Sunni Islamic Government beholden to the West and to the Saudis and GCC, in its stead, 4) redraw Syria’s borders to create a balkanized country, with Israel permanently annexing the Golan Heights, and, perhaps most important, 5) allow the US-NATO-Israel-GCC to seize Syria’s energy resources, including its valuable offshore natural gas reserves, valuable pipeline routes, and the multibillion dollar pipeline from Iran to Tartus that would bypass Turkey, that is now in its initial stages of development. It is in reality a poorly disguised and obscene attempt to plunder the country and re-colonize it.

    Hopefully, those responsible in NATO- including the U.S., Britain, France, Turkey, and to a lesser extent Germany- and those in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States- especially Qatar- will be held to account at the UN and/or the Hague, or, at the very least, see their names published with a description of their crimes, and with the knowledge that they would in the future always be subject to universal jurisdiction and remain at risk of being indicted and prosecuted.

    So, while Hillary may be ill right now, hopefully she will use the time to reflect on the harm she has caused, and the same goes for Secretary Panetta, Tom Donilon, Susan RIce, Jeffrey Feltsman, Samantha Power and Ambassador Ford, among others….and, also their boss, who still has a chance, if he has the vision and guts, to reverse these self destructive policies, and opt instead for a policy of peace, accommodation, trade and economic development, subject to the UN Charter and the rule of law- whether it be in the Middle East or elsewhere. For all of the Administration’s propaganda, its record in Syria has been criminal, and the only way to fix it will be to change the policy.

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